Renshaw, Starc put Aussies beyond 250

23 February 2017

Fast bowler blasts his way to half-century to boost total after Renshaw's gutsy knock

Australia v India Tests, First Test


Among the concurrent mantras of adaptability, patience and resilience preached loud and long ahead of their India campaign, Australia's Test leaders identified a specific benchmark for their batting.

Not so much a desired team total, nor a shopping list of individual contributions but a clear goal to survive for a minimum of 150 overs by which time – according to rudimentary calculations of scoring rates in Asian conditions – they would have posted a tally in excess of 600.

A benchmark that England failed to reach throughout their five-Test campaign late last year, and which was cited by the Australians as a key factor in the 0-4 series defeat to the world's top-ranked Test team.

If that ambition is to be reached, then last pair Mitchell Starc (a belligerent 57no from 58 balls) and Josh Hazlewood will need to push their current 10th wicket stand of 51 for a further 56 overs tomorrow.

By which time, at the rate that Starc scored in the shadows of the evening, Australia will be eyeing a total nudging 600, as well as pushing credibility.

Of course, that blueprint was etched before anyone in the touring party had laid eyes on the pitch at Pune for the opening Test.

One that was as dry as the countryside that has suffered drought conditions and water restrictions with an even drier summer looming, and began to crumble under the heavy feet of bowlers and batters alike from the first overs of the opening session.

A pitch that some expert commentators who walked it and examined it as being among the driest they had seen for the first day of a Test match.

More like a day eight pitch, former Australia leg spinner Shane Warne was heard to observe.

Dry pitch could play into Australia's hands: Warne

But even allowing for the extreme conditions and the fact that, at day's start, 250 would have been deemed a handy total, there seemed a lack of intent in some of the Australia batting that might have played into India's hands.

The nature of a pitch that would have previously been viewed as a 'landmine' on which balls would invariably spit and spin, thereby making scoring a priority because at some stage – as batting folklore likes to say – "a ball's going to come with your name on it".

However, Australia have come into this series with a very clear game plan and survival is writ large upon it.

The fact that the only other batter to reach 50 was 20-year-old opener Matt Renshaw – who was forced to retire mid-innings due to violent stomach upset and returned to post 68 – who has never previously set foot in India suggests that freedom from scars of the past is just as useful a strategy.

Renshaw retires after Warner departs

In an environment that renders a many a traveller aggrieved in close proximity to their arrival, the Australians could have not wished more bountiful fortune in the Test's opening hour.

Unlike his previous experience in Asia where he lost three consecutive coin tosses (and as many Tests) against Sri Lanka last year, Smith's call of "heads" proved correct and he immediately blurted out "we'll bat" lest the decision be sent for review.

Steve Smith starts tour with correct call

Amid the wildly fluctuating assessments of the pitch that ranged from curator Pandurang Salgaoncar's hyperbolic "the ball will fly" to ex-Test star Shane Warne's apocalyptic "it looks like the surface of Mars", the unyielding truism was it was only going to get harder to bat upon.

Australia's best hope of starting this daunting challenges on the surest footing was to win the toss, bat first and – having achieved that – lose minimal wickets in the first session and create a foundation on which to pile those 150 overs.

The second part of that assignment was delivered by openers Renshaw and David Warner who survived the first hour despite being confronted by spin, and the accompanying net of close-to-the-wicket catchers from the second over of the morning.

Given that commenced at 9.34am, not long after the super-sopper had mopped up the early morning dew that was thick on the playing surface when the teams arrived to warm-up, it was a fair indication this was never going to be a seamer's pitch.

It seemed fortune was not only riding with the Australians but had seized the wheel when Warner was bowled around his legs from a flat, fast delivery that was perhaps achieved by the fact Jayant Yadav had overstepped by over a foot.

And the ball deflected from leg stump to the fine leg boundary to compound the unexpected dividend.

Warner gets a huge let off as Australia survive

But just as this pitch was destined to do from ball one, fortune turned sharply and unforgivingly.

The flip began when India's second seamer Yadav came into the attack for the first time, in the day's 28th over which in itself was unusual for a new-ball bowler, and duly got a ball to catch the inside edge and then the stumps.

The wicket that India had toiled so long to grasp came with a two-for-one bonus as Renshaw followed Warner hastily back to the rooms, and Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh started afresh from the very same moment.

The complexion of the game altered in keeping with the fresh personnel.

Runs that had arrived with consistency if not fluency dried like the Pune hinterland, as Australia's best credentialled players of spin found starting on the unpredictable surface about as straightforward as crossing an Indian highway.

Jadeja laughs off his latest horror delivery

Marsh faced 13 deliveries before finding his first single, Smith an unlikely 18 as it became clear that – despite the fractious nature of the pitch – occupation was prized as highly, if not in excess of accumulation.

The 16 runs Australia added after Warner was dismissed to reach 100 were strung out across more than 10 overs, but slowly the pair found themselves presented with sufficient scoring opportunities to find the occasional pressure lifting boundary.

Until Marsh aimed a sweep that instead caught his pad, his gloves and then the fielder at leg slip, at which point the Asian collapse that has become the recurrent theme of recent visits to this region set in almost as fast as Renshaw's stomach cramps.

After a partnership of 30 with Smith, Peter Handscomb fell victim to that deep-in-the-crease technique that is a potential weakness as well as a devout strength when was pinned in front of the stumps by that familiar foe from Sri Lanka.

The ball from a left-arm spinner that doesn't spin, but rather hurried on with the arm.

Saha flies as Yadav strikes

Less than over later Smith was gone, and responsibility for an innings that was supposed (in theory, scrawled on a more reliable pitch) fell to the shoulders of the youngest, least experienced member of the playing XI making his maiden visit to India.

Smith's was one of the day's few dismissals that might not be pinned directly on the pitch – advancing to Ravi Ashwin to clip him through mid-wicket but failing just enough to smother the spin that it flew from the inside of his bat to mid-on.

Mitchell Marsh's recall was nearly as brief as can be with bat in hand, adjudged caught behind to the first delivery he faced by the usually impeccable Richard Kettleborough only to have the verdict overturned on video appeal.

His stay of execution was brief.

Seventeen balls later he was so clearly trapped lbw that not even the most extravagant DRS spendthrift would have considered a referral, and half an hour later Matthew Wade was sent back having tried his luck with the third umpire.

Only to be fired for his fourth single-figure score since making his comeback to Test cricket five Tests ago.

When spin pair Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe contributed a combined tally of nought to the scorecard, that notional tally of 250 looked a distant dream at 9-205 and Umesh Yadav on a hat-trick.

But picking their marks and swinging with an authority that belied the game situation, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood added what might yet prove an invaluable and still unbeaten 51 for the final wicket.

And perhaps sent a timely message to their more accomplished batting teammates in the process.

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